Shane Black's "The Nice Guys" Isn't Peak Shane Black

It seems impossible that “The Nice Guys” is only Shane Black’s third directorial effort; the “Lethal Weapon” scribe is a strong two for two from behind the camera.

Both 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and 2013’s “Iron Man 3” were and remain magnificent curveballs, each spinning genre convention into a petrol bomb of subversion and offbeat comic bravado. They wielded the correct balance of respect and disdain for their forefathers and an incredible awareness of and willingness to play with audience expectations. As such, few directorial careers have ever begun with such a funny, thrilling one-two punch, a sequence that’s had Shane Black fans pleading for more.

This is precisely why the filmmaker’s third go-round is a relative disappointment. “The Nice Guys” sees Black’s talents confined to a well-worn template that he’s already perfected. Twice. Thirty years on from “Lethal Weapon,” buddy cop movies are one of the least fertile creative grounds imaginable. For every “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” there’s a “Cop Out” and a “Get Hard” and a “Ride Along 2” and worse (granted, there isn’t much worse than “Cop Out”). It’s a formula that’s been reverse engineered to hell and back, arguably disintegrated by 2014’s hilarious, historically self-aware “22 Jump Street.” Consequently “The Nice Guys” comes with an air of pointlessness accentuated by its wholly inconsequential narrative.

It’s 1977 – the pic’s barrage of pop culture references and bad fashion never lets us forget it – and a famous porn star has perished in a mysterious car accident. The trail of curious coincidences surrounding Misty Mountains’ death has thrown private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) in the mix together, leaving them tangled up in a familiar web of sex and violence. There are brutish thugs (Keith David and Beau Knapp), a hitman (Matt Bomer), a high-ranking Department of Justice official (Kim Basinger), her rebellious daughter Amelia (Margaret Qualley), and March’s own offspring, Holly (Angourie Rice). The pre-teen just might be a better P.I. than her addled dad.

Gosling and Crowe make an exceptional duo, bestowing their pugnacious Angelenos with an amusing mix of verve and cluelessness. Gosling is especially entertaining, walking a narrow line between goofball incarnate and plausible human being. His presence elevates the screenplay’s surprisingly broad comedy, giving it an identity that it might not have had in the hands of a traditionally comedic actor. Black’s typically incisive laughs aren’t so incisive in “The Nice Guys,” content to careen loosely off a stock cop story. But Gosling’s wide-eyed incredulity makes the comedy better, if not insightful, with Crowe more than eager to do the dramatic heavy lifting.

One problem: there’s very little to lift. Nothing in “The Nice Guys” means much, nor is Black aiming at any particular target. (A subplot about the auto industry is loose allegory for modern day economics, but it’s a stretch.) This strands Gosling and Crowe in a story that isn’t about much more than their characters, without any substance beyond what the actors bring. It’s not luck that they’re so good, but it often feels like they’re getting their writer-director off the hook.

Credit to Shane Black: many of the films evoked here (from Michael Bay’s “The Rock” to Wes Craven’s fiercely self-aware “Scream” series to Henry Winkler’s semi-obscure kids movie “Cop & 1/2”) are direct descendants of his, making the pic’s shortcomings more or less a byproduct of his own ingenuity. It’s a strange place to be in, where the strengths of your earlier work have been aped so much and so often that your creative voice loses some of its potency. But that’s where Black finds himself with “The Nice Guys,” inevitably without the same vivacity he had thirty, fifteen, or even five years ago.

Apart from Gosling and Crowe, who should work together again as soon as possible, Angourie Rice is the big standout as March’s daughter. As in “Iron Man 3” Black proves to be one of the few writer-directors who knows how to work with kids, interpolating a pretty neat father-daughter dynamic into a story where it shouldn’t work. It does, thanks to a nice performance from Rice and knowing writing and direction. The relationship is the extra dimension that the movie requires, proving once again that Black has a great teen movie in him – that is, if he wasn’t put off the prospect by his involvement in 1993 dud “Last Action Hero.”

“The Nice Guys” is – despite energetic, engaging lead performances and a handful of great one-liners – Black’s weakest effort in an age, a shoot-from-the-hip P.I. comedy that isn’t half as interesting as “Inherent Vice” and barely as funny. Shane Black novices would do well in visiting his other work before checking in with “The Nice Guys,” an imperfect example of his remarkable talents.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: May 20, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriter: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Beau Knapp
MPAA Rating: (for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use)